Help me find a chess set for my brother's 40th birthday
January 25, 2012 11:14 PM   Subscribe

My brother surprise birthday party is in a few weeks. He's an avid chess player. What is the dream chess set for the chess lover ?
posted by Baud to Shopping (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
A nice wooden, weighted Staunton-style with a king that's around 4" tall.

Unless he's specifically asked for an unusual set, Staunton is the gold standard for chess styles.
posted by unixrat at 11:26 PM on January 25, 2012

A serious player will probably have a nice Staunton set, though, and probably at least two (a wooden one for at home and a portable tournament set with a vinyl board and plastic pieces).

A lot of serious players would consider elaborate, decorative chess sets kind of silly and pointless. Visual simplicity is the order of the day, here.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:29 PM on January 25, 2012

To support what Mr. Robot said, a serious chess player (who plays in a club, has a rating number etc.) is unlikely to use anything but a simple, standard plastic board and simple pieces. He plays with the pieces he's used to in the club. That doesn't mean that he won't appreciate a beautiful set as a piece of decorative art of course! Chess books, like opening books, would be more useful (if usefulness is important), though it's hard to give advice if you don't know his level, the openings he plays, and so on.
posted by faustdick at 12:12 AM on January 26, 2012

Don't get some poncy chess set. If he has a good home set and a good outdoors/traveling set, he's probably happy. A gaudy non-standard set will only annoy and embarrass him.

Do you know how good he is? He might be a relative beginner, an intermediate player, or an advanced player. Try to figure out exactly how good he is compared to other chess players. If you know any of his chess-playing friends, your best strategy might be to quietly ask them how good he is and what they think a player like him would really enjoy. Is he in a club? If he plays online, maybe you can find out who he plays and email them. If he's got a spouse or children, they might know how to contact someone in his chess circle.

Books could be cool, but do you know what he already has? He might like up-to-date chess strategy. He might like history, biography, and great matches. If you think he likes chess books, scan these selections (for example), write down a list of possible books to get him, check Amazon to see what is available, and then sneakily examine his chess books to see which ones he already has. Note that some titles come up over and over when people list the best chess books ever (for example, My System by Nimzowitsch or Chess Fundamentals by Capablanca), which you might think would make it simpler, but he might already have them. So make a list and then snoop in his books if possible. Or maybe get recent books (for example, Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall), hoping he doesn't have them yet.

If you're both insane and he has a big enough garden (for playing) and garage (for storage), you could buy him a giant chess set with some pieces probably taller than he is.
posted by pracowity at 1:33 AM on January 26, 2012

nth-ing: no Napoleonic fighters, no Alien v Predator chess sets. I don't know who wants these, but chess players don't.
posted by thelonius at 3:44 AM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

If he doesn't own one already a Chess Clock might be a better gift than a Chess Board.
posted by dgeiser13 at 4:41 AM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

following on dgeiser's idea, I used to use these and loved them. What's your budget?
posted by Tarumba at 5:11 AM on January 26, 2012

My husband is *really* into chess, and used to be a serious club player when he was in his prime. Serious chess players today tend to play online unless they are at tournaments. Consider getting him a subscription to the International Chess Club (ICC), where he can play online, listen to chess podcasts and live radio shows of tournaments, etc.

You can get him a gift certificate, and if he has an account already, it will just add an extension to his account, which I'm sure he'll be very happy about. The ICC claims to send it in an attractive folder, so it won't just be an internet printout either.

I also think that a chess board isn't going to be the absolute best present for him unless you already know that he needs and wants one (and what kind). It's like buy a skateboard for a skateboarder... Seems like something he would have already or have a strong preference for a particular type.

Good luck!
posted by tk at 6:33 AM on January 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

re: chess clocks - digital clocks are "preferred" in USCF rules now. The old BHB analog clocks were battle horses, but they seem to have had their day. I took an analog clock to a tournament a couple of years ago, and it was downright embarrassing. TICK TOCK TICK TOCK. Everyone was glaring at me. Maybe they thought I had a bomb.

If your brother plays in tournaments or at clubs, he probably already has a clock, anyway.
posted by thelonius at 6:38 AM on January 26, 2012

n-thing that he's probably got the same set everyone has and doesn't necessarily want/need another.

At the 'fancy stuff' end of chess stuff, he may have Chronos envy. On the other hand, while I'm not playing chess any more, I never experienced Chronos envy--I liked my clock too much. (Also, clocks cost a lot less than I remember.)

Sharpen Your Tactics is a book that is good for chess players of all levels. It looks like it may be really hard to find a not-outrageously-priced copy in decent condition, though.
posted by hoyland at 6:39 AM on January 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

As the wife of a chess player, I learned long ago not to get him gifts related to chess, especially as a surprise. Either he already has it or I could never guess the exact version of what he would want. So I either talk to him and get exactly what he wants or I get him a nice bottle of booze or a sweater or whatever. This same advice applies to my brother-in-law the golf pro.
posted by CathyG at 8:21 AM on January 26, 2012

You could get him a book like Katherine Neville's The Eight, or Arturo Perez Reverte's The Flanders Panel, books which are not about chess explicitly but have chess themes in them (the former moreso than the latter).
posted by PussKillian at 8:40 AM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Staunton all the way. When I was a more dedicated player than I am now, I really appreciated a Staunton tournament set made of a heavier plastic (same dimensions but double the weight).

If books are the way to go -- and he doesn't already have it -- Reuben Fine's The Ideas Behind The Chess Openings is an excellent choice.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:14 AM on January 26, 2012

And yes, The Flanders Panel is a ripping yarn, in which a mystery hinges on a forensic chess problem (that is, when you see the board in a certain position and you have to reconstruct what happened before this).
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:16 AM on January 26, 2012

> So I either talk to him and get exactly what he wants or I get him a nice bottle of booze or a sweater or whatever.

This is the way you should go. If you try to surprise him with an expensive chess-related thing, the odds are overwhelming that he will grit his teeth, do his best impression of gratitude, and silently wish you'd asked him first.
posted by languagehat at 9:37 AM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am a serious chess player whose wife knows better than to get me anything chess-related as a gift. :)

I totally agree that 1) he almost certainly would not value some weird-looking decorative chess set and 2) he probably already has all the chess sets that he needs, which is two, maybe three (a plastic set for taking to tournaments, a nice wooden set for home, and maybe a little magnetic set to analyze on). If you know for sure that he doesn't have a nice wooden set, House of Staunton is a great place to look, but keep in mind that you are likely talking about a couple of hundred dollars for even a "bottom of the line" high-quality wooden set/board combination.

I agree that a subscription (or extension) to the Internet Chess Club would likely be appreciated. I can also recommend a few online resources of training/study material that one can subscribe to: Chess Lecture (daily video lectures), ChessVibes Training (a weekly training newsletter), and Chess Today (a daily chess-news newspaper). They are all high quality.
posted by dfan at 10:59 AM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, unless you have a way of surreptitiously finding out what he has already and what he might want, you may be better off seeing if you can find a gift card or the like for somewhere that sells chess supplies.

That said, if you do go with a set:

Absolutely, as several others have already said, stick to Staunton pattern pieces. To make an analogy, trying to play with anything other than Staunton pattern would be like trying to read a book set in a display typeface—you're using just a bit of extra mental effort just to identify the basic units when you should be thinking about deeper things, and that's annoying. (Actually, that's not a bad experiment. Go into your preferences here on MetaFilter, change the fonts to something non-standard like Papyrus, then go and read some. And I mean read—don't just glance at it for a few seconds and say, "huh, nifty." Read some longish threads in their entirety like that. That's what playing with a non-Staunton pattern set is like, for a serious chessplayer.)

Sets are measured by the height of the king. 3.5 to 4 inches is standard. I wouldn't go outside of those.

A tournament player will have a relatively inexpensive set he takes to tournaments: roll-up vinyl board, plastic pieces. Still, extra-weighted pieces (usually described as "double weighted" or "triple weighted") are a little nicer than the bottom-of-the-line standard in that they're less likely to tip over if you brush against them. If he doesn't already have a double or triple weighted set of pieces, that might be a possibility.

Most tournament players have a bag for carrying the board, pieces, and clock. (Examples) In the unlikely event he doesn't already have one, or the somewhat more likely event that his is worn and needs replacing, that might be another possibility.

In addition to the tournament set, some chessplayers have (or would like to have) a very nice wooden set and board, which usually at home. Others, as noted above, are perfectly happy to use the tournament board and set at home too, and would find the "nice" set frivolous. (So if you're going this route, find a way to discretely inquire whether he already has one, and if not, would like one.) These are typically made of various hardwoods. Previous statements about Staunton pattern and piece size still apply here. These are expensive! I believe mine cost in the neighborhood of $400 combined for the board and set, and that was ~10 years ago. Some of the really nice ones run to the thousands of dollars.

The board and pieces are usually sold separately, for both tournament and "nice" sets.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:20 AM on January 26, 2012

Very good advice already writted on here- just wanted to add my $.02.

I'm an avid chess player and would not want anyone to try and surprise me with a chess set. It's just too individual a taste. What kind of wood does he like? Will he play friendly games, tournament games, blitz games? Does he like stylized knights? Does he want a straight Staunton set or does he want a copy of a particular famous set? ie - the Reykjavik set that Fischer and Spassky played on, etc.

If it were me - I would let him know what you want to do, what the budget is, have him pick it out, and then you pull the trigger and wrap it up for him. No family or friend would have any chance of picking a nice chess set for me.

I still think it's a great idea - and something he'll treasure! It's _who_ it's from that matters - not that they were able to pull it off as a complete surprise.
posted by machinecraig at 11:22 AM on January 26, 2012

Do you know that your brother actually uses a physical set at home much? Or do you envisage the set perhaps being more of a decorative item? As people have said, these days people tend to play on computers when at home. And away from home clubs and tournaments provide their own sets. But a physical set can still be nice when reading a chess book, or if you do have chess playing friends over. My own physical set actually gets used mostly for messing about with my niece and nephew these days.

Having said that, I am a chess player in my 40s, and if my sister had splashed out on a beautiful wooden set or chess table for my 40th, I would *totally* have appreciated that. The high end ones *are* expensive, but maybe not too expensive for a landmark birthday if you are well off.

Something like this
is exactly what I would covet but probably never buy for myself.

Also it has to be said that a wooden set that was a thing of beauty and able to always be set up on a handy table would probably call me to come use it, unlike my roll-up board and plastic set that lives in its box. If it were possible to have a great chess table that could double as a coffee table, I'd probably like that a lot.

As for the other suggestions people have made like books, subscriptions etc... serious players are even more likely to already have exactly what they want with those things, plus you'll be hard put to pick the right ones, and they're probably not special enough for a big birthday, though good ideas for regular ones.

If really stuck and not sure of his tastes and playing habits, a chess gift certificate might be a good way to go.

Anyway... on behalf of chess playing brothers everywhere, I salute your thoughtfulness, whether you decide to go with a chess-related gift or not.
posted by philipy at 11:39 AM on January 26, 2012

machinecraig wrote:

It's just too individual a taste.... I still think it's a great idea - and something he'll treasure! It's _who_ it's from that matters - not that they were able to pull it off as a complete surprise.

I do second this, as when you're picking an object for it's beauty and associations, its important that it's just so... and that varies from person to person... the right wood, the right color tones etc. Almost like a man picking jewelry or clothes for a woman. Either you know their tastes really well, you ask someone who does, or you ask them to choose.
posted by philipy at 11:49 AM on January 26, 2012

I'm gonna buck the trend here and suggest that any serious chess player would surely be thrilled to play on a Super Mario Brothers chess set.
posted by mikeand1 at 12:36 PM on January 26, 2012

A friend just shared this on Facebook. So gorgeous!
posted by cyndigo at 2:58 PM on January 26, 2012

This Vertical Chess Set in a picture frame is kind of cool.
posted by KingEdRa at 5:27 PM on January 26, 2012

Houdini is currently the most powerful computer chess engine available for purchase. (There are some very competitive freeware engines, so he might not already own a more expensive variety).

The "Pro" version costs about $70, but might need a more advanced (Windows) machine than he currently owns. Something like this has enough complicating factors that it may be necessary to nail down what would be appreciated.
posted by rollick at 7:09 PM on January 26, 2012

This looks like my dream set. House of Staunton. 4" King, triple weighted, rosewood/boxwood.
Took me months of bidding to get it at the price I wanted. (I think it listed at around $120 at the time- got it for under $50)
It gets compliments from chess players.
posted by MtDewd at 12:25 PM on January 27, 2012

mikeand1- I'm going to suggest you haven't asked any serious chess player.
cyndigo- that is gorgeous, but not what most serious players want.

There must be some serious players somewhere who like such things, but I've never met one who admitted it, especially to play on.
posted by MtDewd at 12:32 PM on January 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Good grief. I checked out the Staunton website. They have mammoth chess pieces - not as in 'huge,' but as in 'Wooly'. It'll set you back 10,000 dollars, though.
posted by Transl3y at 11:09 AM on January 28, 2012

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